Skip to main content

The Science of Walking

Investigations into Locomotion in the Long Nineteenth Century

The Science of Walking recounts the story of the growing interest and investment of Western scholars, physicians, and writers in the scientific study of an activity that seems utterly trivial in its everyday performance yet essential to our human nature: walking. Most people see walking as a natural and unremarkable activity of daily life, yet the mechanism has long puzzled scientists and doctors, who considered it an elusive, recalcitrant, and even mysterious act. In The Science of Walking, Andreas Mayer provides a history of investigations of the human gait that emerged at the intersection of a variety of disciplines, including physiology, neurology, orthopedic surgery, anthropology, and psychiatry.
Looking back at more than a century of locomotion research, Mayer charts, for the first time, the rise of scientific endeavors to control and codify locomotion and analyzes their social, political, and aesthetic ramifications throughout the long nineteenth century. In an engaging narrative that weaves together science and history, Mayer sets the work of the most important representatives of the physiology of locomotion—including Wilhelm and Eduard Weber and Étienne-Jules Marey—in their proper medical, political, and artistic contexts. In tracing the effects of locomotion studies across other cultural domains, Mayer reframes the history of the science of walking and gives us a deeper understanding of human movement.

232 pages | 50 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2020

History: European History, History of Ideas, History of Technology

History of Science


"The Science of Walking is all about how there is more to taking a stroll than meets the eye. Physiology, neurology, anthropology and psychiatry all feature in Andreas Mayer’s fascinating account of an everyday activity."

New Scientist

“Mayer’s compelling argument is that the recurring interplay between mechanical, semiotic, and poetic registers in the science of walking derives from the inherent complexity of the activity itself. Mayer’s very well-crafted study avoids any temptation to wander off into an indeterminate ramble. Every twist and turn contributes to the argument, culminating in Gustav Meyrink’s tale of ‘centipede’s dilemma,’ in which a toad asks a centipede to think consciously about his own mechanism of walking, thus condemning it to total immobility. Mayer suggests that this problem of the reflexivity of the act of self-observation lies at the heart of the science of walking: the dream of mechanically recording gait recedes further with every technical advance.”

Journal of Modern History

"An interesting and finely researched book. . . . Mayer has selected a number of central themes and researched them in depth, rather than dwelling on the sheer breadth of interests that historical research on walking might address. . . . This translation, extended by the author, is highly readable andextensively illustrated—itself a statement about the manner in which researchers hoped to pin down the fleeting realities of movement as objective knowledge. It makes available and attractive a large amount of research on a largely unknown literature in French and German. . . . The book is a fluent and authoritative study, opening new questions and new resources, certainly not just for a narrowly understood history of biomechanics or of inscription instruments, but for a history of the human sciences with all the breadth that implies."


"In recent years, historians of science have made fruitful use of an analytical perspective focused on the definition of natural phenomena as 'objects' of science. Andreas Mayer turns this process of objectification on its head. . . . His mastery of the disparate language, methods and theories surrounding his 'recalcitrant object' is evident on every page. The insights offered in this thoughtful and elegant study will challenge historians across a broad range of fields."

Social History of Medicine

"Highly readable and often entertaining, as the author's wit and sense of joy in his research are everywhere apparent. The book is also beautifully illustrated, the many images serving as further testament to the different ways in which human bodies have been captured in motion. . . . An innovative and provocative study, which opens clear pathways to further fields of inquiry." 

Bulletin of the History of Medicine

"An engaging narrative that weaves together science and history. . . . The book strikes a good balance between detail (it has an extensive bibliography) and readability. . . . It's a good reminder of how science doesn't operate in a vacuum, but rather is influenced by and interacts with wider society."

The Biologist

"This is an unusual book, a true history of science that draws heavily on literature and the arts to explicate the science. Given that during the 18th century, scientists were as much philosophers and writers as researchers, this approach seems appropriate. The clear and witty style makes the text enjoyable for its qualities as much as for what it says. . . . This interesting view of cross-disciplinary scientific development would not be out of place in any history of science collection. . . . Recommended."


“Mayer calls on a wide variety of primary sources, hitherto little studied and often unexpected. . . . The book also contains numerous illustrations that show the astonishing inventiveness of the techniques deployed to pierce the secret of human walking, from stroboscopic disks to experimental shoes to Marey’s famous chronophotographs. These texts and images. . . . allow us to grasp the epistemic specificity of the field through its oddities.”


"What could be more natural, more intuitive than walking? Yet as Mayer shows in this erudite and perceptive study, everyone from physiologists to physicists, drillmasters to dancemasters, novelists to physiognomists tried to plumb the secrets of human locomotion in the long nineteenth century. Deeply researched and beautifully illustrated, this book draws together philosophy, science, literature, and medicine into the fascinating story of a science that sought the essence of the human and the truths of character in how we put one foot in front of another."

Lorraine Daston, director emerita, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science

"Mayer asks how the apparently mundane and commonplace activity of walking ever became the subject of a science. His fascinating and illuminating answers, presented in this superbly crafted book, reveal very much more. Mayer gives a compelling account of how experiment and observation interacted across a range of social and medical sciences through the nineteenth century. Along the way, he offers important commentary on the very status of the empirical sciences and the emergence of modern disciplines such as field anthropology and experimental physiology, and he illustrates his account with graphics and cleverly chosen case studies. The work will help change received stories of how modern life became the target and the challenge for the scientific gaze."

Simon Schaffer, University of Cambridge

"With the emergence of the human sciences in the late Enlightenment comes a new scientific interest in that most human of things, the upright gait, which Balzac famously called ‘the physiognomy of the body.’ For nearly a century and a half, from Rousseau and Wordsworth to Freud and Marcel Mauss, this subject would remain a preoccupation across many intellectual environments in at least three languages. Mayer, a guide singularly equipped to conduct an exploration of this complex terrain, leads us on a walking tour that is by turns march and ramble, hike and promenade. The result is a deft and original study, with implications spelled out for promising paths of inquiry well beyond its own beautifully executed itinerary."

James Chandler, author of An Archaeology of Sympathy: The Sentimental Mode in Literature and Cinema

"Mayer chronicles in illuminating detail the dead ends ingeniously followed by early kinesiology. . . [He] concludes 'this mundane activity has proven remarkably recalcitrant to being transformed into a scientific object.'"

The European Legacy

Table of Contents

Introduction: A Recalcitrant Object

1 Walkers, Wayfarers, Soldiers: Sketching a Practical Science of Locomotion
2 Observers of Locomotion: Theories of Walking in the French Science de l’homme
3 Mechanicians of the Human Walking Apparatus: The Beginnings of an Experimental Physiology of the Gait
4 The Rise of Graphical and Photographic Methods: Locomotion Studies and the Predicament of Representation

Conclusion: The Centipede’s Dilemma

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press